Why the Return of Paid Content Will Be Good for PR

For years I have been watching the economic decline of journalism. The cycle has gone like this:

  • new media emerge in droves because of the digital and social media opportunities;
  • in a rush to keep up with digital and social expansion and competition, legacy print media put their content online for free;
  • subscribers, preferring free to paid, and being overwhelmed with choices, drop subscriptions and use social platforms, RSS feeds, news aggregators and so on to access news;
  • the competition intensifies and to stay economically viable (i.e. more clicks) journalism quality suffers and goes solid reporting of important news is edged by click-bait, market-driven, entertainment value;
  • good journalists accept buy-outs and publishers seek “cheaper content” by aggregating, leveraging content from broader sources (witness MLive consolidating newsrooms and its universal desk so the content is very similar in Muskegon, Detroit, Grand Rapids, or how similar Detroit Free Press and USA Today look ) and gaining free content from bloggers, user-generated content and other “innovations” (witness the GVSU student who was paid in swag for her popular Buzzfeed quizzes);
  • smaller newsrooms put out less serious news, people keep getting it for free, favoring a stream of articles from multiple sources vs a deep read of select single sources;
  • with lower subscription and readership numbers, advertising dollars continue to decline, offering even less revenue to put into the “product” of must-read news.

There have been some alternative models. The New York Times offers 5 free reads per month and then a given IP address will have to subscribe. Others, like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, offer some article free but premium articles are dangled out there with a notice that they are for subscribers only.

Other publications have emerged in a non-profit or donation model. In Michigan, many quality journalists from legacy media have moved to such publications such as the Bridge (“If you care about Michigan, please support our work”) or more recently Michigan Advance (heads up–I’ve invited editor Susan Demas to speak at GVSU and my colleagues are putting together an event for March 29 that will include a panel of journalism, advertising, public relations, and communications faculty including myself).

There is also a trend of nonprofits, businesses, and government offices becoming their own media outlet in the form of a news bureau or online newsroom that goes direct to public. A former student of mine who works for a state-wide association just asked me about this. I have written about this pointing to some examples on my blog previously–here’s a collection of prior posts on the subject.

But recently I noticed more media, from individual outlets to group conglomerates, drawing a line in the media economics sand and announcing a return to paywalls and subscriptions for their content. The latest example of this is a decision by Conde Nast for its fleet of publications. Some see the move as a bad one, but it is a trend to watch nonetheless.

Here’s why this is good for advertising and public relations.

  1. Survival of media. This will reverse the downward cycle I posed above. I heard a billionaire say once that if something is free, it has no perceived value. If people have to pay, publishers will have to put out quality reporting–meat, not candy. There is a hunger among the intelligent public for a less frantic media landscape, for news that is credible and quality. This will help good media–whether old or new–to survive.
  2. Communication environment. We should want good journalism to survive, first as citizens, and secondly as advertising and public relations professionals. Programmatic and targeted advertising made some economic sense, but it can lack qualitative intuition, creativity, and ethics. A recent study shows that most people don’t want tailored or targeted ads. Audiences who pay for content are more attentive to both paid and earned media (or ads and editorial content). And our ads and article pitches will exist next to good and not questionable content, which other studies shows matters to readers.
  3. Dedicated and aggregated audience. Digital media has been about both reach (quantity) and targeting small audiences of like minds and relevant interests. But returning to paywalls changes the equation. It may result in lower reach as not all current readers will subscribe. But those who do subscribe will be in one place, read each issue and multiple articles, have a natural interest in content and likely a net disposable income enabling them to respond to ads.

There are some considerations to work out as journalism returns to paywalls. One is whether subscribers–and maybe only subscribers–will be allowed to share content. Another is whether publishers will offer headlines and article summaries, or a handful of free articles each issue as a loss leader to draw subscribers. We’ll see. We are in what economist Joseph Schumpeter would call a “gale of creative destruction” in the media industry. What looks dire could emerge as a very good move forward.

I for one am eager to see what good things paywalls do for journalism, content, citizens and the ad and PR industry.

A Humble Proposal to Make Social Media Useful, and Journalism Better

Initially, when it was new, social media was supposed to be a great equalizer. But it hasimages not worked out so well. What was supposed to hasten in an “Arab Spring” in some parts of the world has led instead to regime crackdown on technology. In China the government is using technology to act more like Big Brother to monitor every area of private life rather than to respond to citizen voices.

Here in the U.S., what was supposed to be “media democracy” has instead become more of a media cacophony, with multiple screaming voices and outright misinformation or actual “fake” news.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times asserts that social networks need to address this problem as a system error, and not react in real-time on a case by case basis. The article frets–as you might suspect from the NYT–that journalists should not have to do the job of policing the content on social networks. The social networks have that responsibility, and they are failing at it.

I’m not a tech guru by any stretch, but I have a humble suggestion to address the problem, to fix the “signal to noise” ratio, to return to quality vs quantity of posts, and to realize that on matters of truth and democracy, in our modern era the “marketplace if ideas” has become a third-world bazaar and we might appreciate a row of simple boutiques.

OK, maybe that’s a bad metaphor. But here is my thinking:

Social networks should start a separate channel just for news. This returns us to the old days when “bonafide” journalism was obvious to recognize by publication or network or program. Participants in this channel should be vetted as professional news organization, and this may include new media, but they must prove themselves to be legitimate in coverage of facts and to clearly label opinion where that is the nature of content (as the old op-ed pages in actual print do). They should ensure a non-partisan tone and focus on informing the public of facts, policy proposals, and straightforward information from business, sports, entertainment and other beats also. They could even hire journalists to do this.

Another channel should be set aside for brands. This would be where users could choose to see the content originally associated with pages. If people actually want to have a relationship and stay informed about a company, its products and services, or even its cause-related activity, this is the place for it.

Still another channel could be dedicated to causes. This is where nonprofits could shine, engaging users in fundraising, education, volunteer recruitment, and activism campaigns.

The government would have its own channel called civics. The White House, the state house, city hall, government agencies and office holders at all levels could communicate to constituents directly here.

Finally there would be a channel called, wait for it, social. This is where people could engage with their friends and family in a social nature.

If individuals wanted to share news, brands, causes or civics information, they could. But links back would take users to those channels to view the original content and engage in any discussion.

I don’t know if Facebook wants to try this and roll out the new feature for Christmas. Or, maybe there is an enterprising start-up out there reading this who can enter the market competitively by offering sanity with their social network. I don’t have the time, finances, or tech chops to roll this out myself. But if anyone wants to compensate me for the idea, I’m listening.
I’m also listening to what anyone else has to say about this issue.

Tech Media Now Must Take Role of Journalists

As the media shake-up continues, it seems that the role and responsibility of “journalism’ is shifting from conventional news organizations to the modern digital companies responsible for the changes.

Consider the confluence of recent headlines.

Today I read that the Detroit News is offering buyouts to all journalists on staff, no matter the role or length of service, in order to meet new budget guidelines as the economic model of traditional journalism continues to struggle. This is just the latest in a long list of news outlets reducing reporting  and editing staff.

The shrinking of conventional journalism means an erosion of the role journalists should play in our society in several ways.

One is the role of providing a public forum. For years the letters to the editor and op-ed pages were what the taverns and coffee shops were modern communication–a place for what German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the “public sphere”, where citizens discussed and informed themselves about politics and other news of the day.

But these days, people don’t need the op-ed pages and letters forum to engage in public debate. Even the online comments sections on mainstream news organizations’ apps and websites are losing traction, so much so that some news sites are eliminating comments. People talk about news on social media. Traditional media don’t host the conversations, they participate.

Another journalistic function being taken away from journalists is the editing and verification role. Sure, the digital revolution made communication more of a democracy, but it also made it more of a cacophony. Tech companies like Facebook and Google–where much of the control of society’s information has shifted–are being asked to vet content they allow into the public realm after reports of fake news appearing along side legitimate information. Facebook and Google don’t want to take on this function. It means moving from what the law would call providing access to providing content. Essentially, it means they are being asked to move from being a technology company to being news organizations, going from algorithm to journalism.

In a similar way, Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversy over targeting ethnic groups in Facebook advertising. Micro-targeting is a huge advantage in digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, as a speaker to the GVSU Advertising Club recently shared. This is largely an ethical issue, since in some cases–such as housing ads–certain ethnic groups have been excluded. It raises the old question of do we mainstream all minorities in our communication? Is targeting them a positive way of reaching out to them or is it a negative way of marginalizing them? A lot depends on intent, and requires human oversight.

So even as our technology changes, the issues in our society–and our need for a professional class that can report, monitor, verify, curate and edit content–will be needed.

Advertising and public relations professionals who understand ethics and have integrity can and should fill some of this social role.

But I also wonder if certain former employees of the Detroit News and other “old media” will be snapped up by tech companies like Google, Facebook and other companies who realize the formulas of technology can’t fully replace the art and wisdom of actual human agents.

Government News Service for Residents: Offensive to News Media?

The Ottawa County (Michigan) government recently announced a new subscription news service to residents of the county. Being a resident, and  PR professor, I subscribed to receive by email a variety of county news releases across categories. I already have received several, and find them to be objective and informative, as government information should be.

But it didn’t take long for one paper in the county, the Grand Haven Tribune, (self disclosure: I write a monthly column for the paper as a community columnist), to take issue with the county’s new public service. The July 29, 2015 editorial (not online yet as I blog so this link is to the opinion page vs the specific editorial) cautions that the county’s news service is a “slippery slope” and the put the word ‘news’ in quotes in the headline and throughout the opinion. Their concerns are that the county may be circumventing professional media, or that in time it will be like Pravda, the Russian state media. They wonder aloud if residents feel the county will give unbiased reports of County Commission meetings and other public information.

I take issue with the Tribune taking issue with all of this.

I have a degree in journalism and practiced it for a time and still respect the role of objective journalism in democratic society. But I also have studied, practiced and now teach public relations, as well as PR ethics and law, and I commend Ottawa County for this new service. I disagree that it conflicts with the role of traditional newspaper and other news outlets, and I would assert that there are many positives to a subscription news service for residents.

Let me first address the Tribune’s complaints.

First, the Tribune needs to reconsider the arrogant posture that only it and other journalistic organizations have a corner on ‘news.’ News comes from newspapers and broadcast media, sure, but it also comes directly from organizations, institutions and individuals. Newspapers report news, they don’t create it, invent it, or own it. The Constitution guarantees “freedom of the press” to any individual to print and disseminate information, not just “journalists.” The residents or any other audience are the ones who should determine what is newsworthy.

On a related point, the communications professionals at Ottawa County are professionals. The Tribune expressed concern about the County circumventing “professional” media. But public relations professionals–whether in the government, nonprofit, or business sector–also have professional degrees and standards of practice.

What Ottawa County is doing is not new. It is good PR practice. PR practitioners have long communicated with a mix of forms of media, characterized by the acronym PESO–paid, earned, shared, and owned. Paid media is advertising or anything that must be paid for. Earned media is conventional media relations, sending news releases to journalists with the hope that the editors and reporters who receive it will do a story as a result. Owned media includes the newsletters, annual reports, brochures, web sites and anything else an organization owns and controls as a form of communication. And recently shared media is the digital forum where tweets and posts are passed along by individual users in their respective networks. If you go to the news page on the Ottawa County web site you can sign up for these news releases as well as newsletters, annual reports and other forms of information.

A third point is the fact that not all news is covered. Even though journalists call themselves the watchdogs of government, they have limits in what they can cover. There is a volume of information available from Ottawa County and I doubt the Tribune has the capacity to cover all of it. They have to make decisions as to what is of must value to their readers and the community at large. The county subscription service doesn’t compete with newspapers, it complements them and allows small groups of individuals to subscribe to very specific information of particular interest to them which may not get any attention in mainstream media.

Finally, the Tribune should acknowledge that Ottawa County exists in the same media environment that conventional newspapers do. Just as the Tribune has expanded online and into the social media landscape, so must all institutions. Digital media enables interaction, individually tailored information across multiple platforms and formats. If newspapers do this, why not the government? The county will likely garner an assortment of small audiences for various forms of information. The Tribune will still be needed to bring the most relevant and important information to broad audiences who would not otherwise seek it. And if the county does fall into the temptation to control information like Pravda, that’s where the watchdog role comes in. I’m sure that the Tribune staff will still be sitting in on open county meetings and reporting on them, going beyond what the news releases say.

Meanwhile, there are many positives for the county’s information subscription service. They do not pass over the conventional media, they merely offer specific and direct delivery of information to their constituents–a laudable goal. They are providing more transparency and accountability. They are staying up to date with technology. They are serving their constituents. Sounds to me like good “news.”

In fact, the county did make the news recently for winning another award for its website. I’m not concerned, I’m grateful. In time I think the Tribune will be also.

Brian Williams, Journalists Lying, and The Moral Superiority of Public Relations

OK. The headline of this blog was a bit sensational and an obvious attempt at click bait. But a poor blogger has to do something to keep up with the big boys at Rock Center to grab some eyeballs. Do me a solid and read on.

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has taken himself off the air voluntarily for a few days because of his unfortunate episode of, to quote him directly, “misremembering” some facts related to report he did on the Iraq War.

Apparently he said he was in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire, and military veterans called him out on that. His statements when covering Hurricane Katrina are now also called into question, according to an article in USA Today, one of many national media stories on the subject.

Leave aside the fact that reporting should not be done from memory. Does not a journalist take notes or record when “reporting”? One wonders what else Mr. Williams may have fabricated in his recently celebrated 10 years in the anchor chair at NBC. Were he not an employee of this fabled (pun most definitely intended) network, Dateline NBC would be putting the finishing touches on a graphic for an expose called “Brian Williams: Decade of Deception.”

But let’s ease up on Brian Williams a little. After all, he’s not the only national journalist to lie. Dan Rather over at CBS has his own wikipedia entry for his famous fabrication about George Bush’s military background. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and others are recounted in this Yahoo new media round up of old media journalism liars.

I have practiced both journalism and public relations. Now I teach public relations. And what I hear a lot is how public relations lacks ethics, and implied is how righteous journalists are by comparison.

So let’s pause and reflect on this “teachable moment,” shall we?

Any profession has good and bad practitioners. In PR, there are some who are intentionally deceptive or do other unethical deeds. But it would be unethical and intellectually dishonest to indict the entire profession. That is especially the case when a lot of research shows that unethical PR deeds are usually committed by non-PR professionals–lawyers, marketers, CEOs–or by people with no bonafide training or degree in PR. In fact, some of the largest whoppers of unethical PR are committed by former journalists (eg. Burson-Marsteller’s smear campaign of Google for client Facebook). 

A lot of the criticism of PR is co-mingled with a phobic anti-corporate sentiment. But, we must keep in mind that NBC, CBS and other major national journalistic enterprises are also corporations. Big corporations. They shamelessly promote their various interests on their own programs. And they compete with each other relentlessly. They need attention, to have an audience to sell to advertisers, whom they want to charge ever more money.

There are a variety of reasons journalists may lie. Business competitive pressure. An ideological worldview contrary to the person or party they cover. Or simple ego to succeed.

The point is, they lie. We don’t even know about all the times they lie. To insinuate that the institution of journalism has any moral high ground over the profession of public relations is just another lie.

Professions are neutral. It’s the professionals who vary in their ethics. Brian Williams is the latest evidence of this. It’s probably only a matter of time before we have more.

In the meantime, we all get to watch NBC and Mr. Williams engage in some public relations, as they seek to manage this crisis, work on image restoration and re-build the NBC brand. Now THAT should be good television.